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360° Video Is No Gateway to VR, says BBC
BBC R&D is not convinced of the case for producing news in VR, and warns against the perils of relying too heavily on tech company sponsorship of branded 360° or VR news content

If broadcasters and publishers view 360° video as an on-ramp to full VR then they'd better think again. While VR is promising and will likely succeed as a new content media, there are multiple issues with its development, according to the BBC speaking at the Hollywood Professional Association Tech Retreat UK in Oxford this week.

"Perhaps the biggest problem is that there is no audience for VR yet," said Zillah Watson, a former current affairs producer, who is now editorial lead on future content and storytelling projects for BBC Research & Development. "We haven't got a way of distributing VR to an audience to find out what they want from the experience."

Watson is leading BBC investigations into how suitable VR might be for news reporting.

She said the industry has come a long way in terms of creating hard news programming in 360° since 2015 and the BBC's first news experiment from the Calais migrant camps—but it was clear that there are still a lot of challenge left to overcome before VR news goes mainstream.

"360° has been justified by the broadcast news industry as a gateway to VR. It is not. I question if there is any evidence that watching 360° will make a user want to watch on a VR headset. 360° video on mobile or in browsers will not drive people to VR. If we don't create a good content ecosystem that people want to explore and view and we don't make headsets better, then the whole thing won't work."

What 360° is, she said, is a gateway to production. "It is much easier to produce interactive 360° now with lower-cost cameras since this reduces cost and speeds turnaround—two essentials for news reporting."

So, who is the current audience for VR news? "VR news producers—and I'm not really kidding," she said. "Content needs to be cheaper and easier to produce. The complexity of porting to different platforms is a real issue. Even things like the amazing work we have done around object-based or binaural sound will be redundant if people don't wear headphones. VR business models are weak, and the content is not that good."

Nonetheless news organizations have been among the first to invest in VR.

"What is clear is that a lot of early investment is being enabled by tech partnerships," she said. The New York Times daily 360° video reports are being underwritten by Samsung, she said, while The Guardian newspaper's Daydream VR content is sponsored by Google.

"There is a danger in the relationship tech giants like Google may exert on the growth of VR in news publishing, especially since news is built on independence and relies on accuracy."

She added, though, that publishers have been shrewd. "There's no monetisation case for a newspaper to invest in VR just now when there is no audience for it, but they have been clever at partnering with tech companies to make content and see what works and what doesn't."

It is notable also that the Digital Production Partnership (DPP)—a trade body promoting broadcaster and content creator interests in the UK—has also advised its members to keep a watching brief before rushing in. Members should feel "no pressure to act just now," it stated in March, considering that UHD production is more important.

Watson was skeptical of predictions made by analysts for the growth of VR. "By 2022 a maximum of 25% of UK adults might have access to some kind of VR headset," she said, quoting the BBC's internal research based on analyst reports. "But this includes Google Cardboard, which is fairly low quality. It will take some time before higher level headsets take off, and even then sales will be dominated by gamers."

Having canvassed the opinion of news producers across the industry, Watson said no one was under any illusion that VR was anything other than niche.

"I'm not convinced that publishers think there is huge monetization of VR in future. The best short-term scenario is mobile VR, but it is questionable whether full VR with six degrees of freedom is useful for communicating news."

News broadcasters have a choice, she said: to opt for quality or reach. The documentary type of content with high production values that run up to 20 minutes long delivered via apps to headsets is the quality route, while very short sub-2-minute clips intended for the magic window or browser viewing on smartphones and distributed on social channels is the other.

"The danger in going for quality is that you don't build a big enough audience to justify investment, and the danger of reach is that content is not distinctive enough to be special and it might be better shooting with regular video," she said.

To further illustrate the issue, she observed—tongue in cheek—that interior design may have to change to accommodate VR. "Sofas do not make it easy to look around you in 360°. Perhaps we do have to redesign the home furniture or at least make the perfect swivel chair to watch these experiences.

"It's ironic that the VR industry is returning to the model Westinghouse exploited first to drive commercial TV in the 1950's—branded content," she said.

"When the telephone was invented, it took a long time for people to work out why they needed it. That's the stage we are at now with VR. When sound was first introduced to the movies—that is the stage we are now at in working out the grammar for audio in VR. We have a long way to go before the VR experience is compelling enough to make you want to put on a headset everyday, unless you are a diehard gamer."

Watson added that she wanted to see more "happy" news content. "There are a lot of miserable news story documentaries, but to drive the consumer side people will want happier experiences. We do need content that will make people feel full of joy, and VR does have this amazing, perhaps even unique ability to make you feel happy."

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